Puzzles and Surrender

Puzzles and Surrender

This summer, our family had the privilege of spending a week at a friend’s house on the lake.  I was excited to find a 1000-piece puzzle of a cottage lake scene in their collection of games in the living room.  I hadn’t pieced together a puzzle larger than 24 pieces since my little ones were born. Upon opening the box filled with a broken picture, my brain lit up like a Christmas tree. The challenge of 1000 pieces of chaos seemed intoxicating as the pieces summoned me to transform them into a coherent whole.  I quickly fell into the puzzle trance (come on, puzzlers, you know what I’m talking about), and within a day or two, the chaos resolved into a beautiful portrait of peace and calm.


Thus began my puzzle addiction.  Since that vacation,  I have set up a card table in our living room, having a complicated puzzle in the works at all times.  And for me, the more complicated, the better.  I tried a 2000-piece puzzle, but I couldn’t find a surface in the house large enough to accommodate its expansive dimensions. I really love the picture-mosaic puzzles, where the larger images are composed of thousands of tiny pictures.  This complexity adds an extra layer of challenge and adds about a day or two to the course of completion.

Now, aside from keeping my brain agile and engaged, I think that for me puzzle-doing holds something more symbolic than just a time-consuming activity.

My life seems like chaos.  My brain feels like scrambled eggs.  My medical situation feels like that 2000 piece-puzzle that I can’t seem to find a surface large enough to complete.  Not only does it feel like that 2000-piece-puzzle, but it feels like 2000 pieces from 2000 separate puzzles that will never fit together.

And it’s not just my medical situation.  It is my scrambled, jumbled, broken history that seems like it will never make sense in the present.  It is my chaotic regimen of medications that alleviate a few symptoms but create their own awful set of side-effects that sometimes seem infinitely worse than the symptoms that they treat: Side-effects that alter my personality, my mental state, my ability to remain sane and stable.  It is enough to make my brain feel like it is going to ooze out of my ears in a pharmaceutical-enduced alphabet soup.   It is the endless questions about my future and the future of my family, as we navigate life in its insecure complexity.

The puzzle of my life seems like it will never in a million years create any kind of cohesive whole, let alone a beautiful portrait.  So, I work on puzzles that make sense. The puzzles that have edge pieces, corners, patterns, and colors that fit together.  No matter how chaotic it seems when you open the box, you can trust that in a day or so, you will be gazing at an orderly, well-formed, complete masterpiece.

But here’s the thing about life:  It may not make sense on this side of heaven.  We may not have a complete picture while we are still breathing air here on this broken ball of earth.

And here’s the thing about God:  We also will not be able to put together the puzzle of the Master-Creator on this side of heaven.  God refuses to fit in our “box,” and so will not fit together like one of my clear-cut puzzles.

My intellectual human brain likes concepts that fit neatly in a cohesive whole.  I like questions that have complete and clear-cut answers.  I like to feel larger than ideas and questions, and in order to feel larger than ideas,  I have to be able to fully wrap my mind around them. I am larger than the puzzles that I create.  I can be “creator” and “master” of the puzzle.

No matter how popular Henley’s “Invictus” poem might be, I am not “creator” and “master” of my life.  I am also not “creator” and “master” of God.  In surrender,  I release the need to fully understand.  I let go of the drive to put every piece together in order to fully wrap my mind around my past and present.  I release the need to be able to predict and control my future.  This process of surrender is counter-intuitive.  It goes against my desperate drive for control and mastery.  It tramples on my self-sufficient pride.  And I am confident that it is the only way to peace and wholeness.

Ironically, the only path toward growth and wholeness is surrender.  What if I took the pieces of my chaotic puzzles in my hands and lifted them, handing them over in sweet abandon to the Creator who actually knows what He is doing?  What if I stopped asking “why” and started seeking the face of the One who intimately knows me, past, present, and future?  What if I left my puzzle-master pursuit to the cardboard cut-out pieces on my card table in my living room? What if in doing so,  I could sincerely sing “Whatever my lot, He has taught me to say, ‘It is well, it is well with my soul‘”?

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Puzzle pieces

Puzzles demand completion.  I am not sure why.  Something in our brains compells us to put their pieces together.

I feel like my life is a puzzle.  It has offered me plenty of pieces, probably enough to get a pretty clear picture of the trauma.  Somehow, however,  I adopted the belief that I am not allowed to put my puzzle together.  I am forced to stare at this 1000-piece puzzle, unmade, knowing that these pieces probably look something like a nightmare when put together, but I am never allowed to fit them next to one another.  That act would be way too presumptuous.  I would be making assumptions and would automatically become a liar.  I am allowed to report on one piece of experience at a time, each little snapshot, or piece of a snapshot.  But to chain those snapshots together to make a clear portrait would be unthinkable.

The irrational thing about my belief is that no one says that it is presumptuous to put a puzzle together.  No one says, “Who are you to assume that those pieces fit together just because they make a complete picture and their shapes match?”  No. That would be ludicrous.  This is what we do with puzzles.

So how did I come to adopt the belief that my life puzzle is never allowed to be completed?

What do we do with a puzzle once it is completed?  We say, “Yay,” take it apart, and put it back in the box.  Then we put it on the game shelf with a nice mental check mark.  We feel better.  The puzzle goes back on the shelf.  It is no longer sprawled out on the kitchen table, making it so that we cannot eat or drink without staring at the incomplete picture.  We can go on with our lives, and use the table for other purposes.  My puzzle, with thousands of pieces, is spread over the table of my life.  Because I am not allowed to complete it, I cannot see anything else but the fragments.  It haunts me.  This sucks.  But there is a spell cast, one that has enchanted the puzzle and my mind.  I must sit and stare at the fragments, with a brain that is desperately bent towards completion but has been bewitched into believing that completion is a felony.

So maybe today,  I will fit two pieces together.  Maybe I will break the spell so that one day, my table can be used for living purposes.